Spotlight: Francis Bacon

Bacon-Leiris

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Michael Leiris, 1976
Aquatint, 11.75″ x 9.875″
Gift of Kenneth A. Cohen

 

Infamous during his life and raised to mythic proportions in death, the work of Francis Bacon (1909–1992) defined an era of British painting. He built his oeuvre using provoking, and at times unsettling imagery. Thrown out of the house at sixteen, Bacon sought out a reality all his own. While living in Paris and Berlin as a young man before he began his career as a painter, he would have been able to see the work of post-impressionists, cubists, surrealists, constructivists, and examples of the Bauhaus Movement first hand. His style was highly influenced by his exposure to Picasso during this period, and was inspired by the freedom with which Picasso abstracted the forms of the body.

It was not until the 1930s that he began to practice as an artist. Bacon worked primarily with oil on canvas and was for the most part self-taught. Bacon was known for being keenly perceptive of all that was occurring around him, and once described himself as “a pulverizing machine” in regards to the way he consumed images.[1] Pictures of his studio reveal hundreds of photographs and magazine cut outs, covering the walls and piled in corners. He approached his source imagery through a purely aesthetic lens; appropriating a pastiche of photographic representations from a variety of sources to blend with the figural representation of his sitters.

Executed in 1976, the Bell Gallery’s print of Portrait of Michel Leiris exemplifies the style Bacon developed later in his career. Where his early work is regarded as carnal and violent, the portraits he produced in the 1970s and onward display a relatively tranquil depiction of their subjects. The figures often appear on a flat, cool colored background, compared to the confining environments and the florid reds and oranges he frequently employed to surround his subjects earlier in his career. The increased stability of the images he produced at this point parallels the footing he found late in his later career while being managed by the Marlborough Gallery and exhibited internationally as the greatest British painter since J.M.W. Turner.[2]

Michel Leiris (1901–1990) was a prominent 20th-century French surrealist writer, ethnographer, poet, art critic, and a close friend of Bacon’s. During his career he sat at the nexus of many strands of French intellectualism. By the end of the1920s Leiris was a colleague of the dissident surrealist George Bataille and frequently contributed to his magazine Documents. Bacon and Leiris met frequently whenever the former visited Paris, and Leiris is credited with influencing Bacon’s worldview. In 1983 Leiris published an illustrated monograph on Bacon’s work.

In the rendering of Michel Leiris his face is recognizable through the abstraction, though it appears as if the features of two or three people have been combined with those of his own. The portrait rests on a flat dark background that encroaches on the figure, bleeding into the forms of the face. This later portrait was rendered in pastel before being reproduced as a print, as was common in Bacon’s work during the 1980s.[3] Bacon’s portraits present a hybrid of figuration and abstraction, producing a new altered reality that attempts to express the psychological condition of the sitter over traditional mimetic representation.

– Maya Code-Williams ’16

 

[1] Domino, Christophe, and Ruth Verity Sharman, Francis Bacon: Painter of a Dark Vision, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997) 57.

[2] Tate Britain, “Artist Biography: Francis Bacon 1909-1992” tate.org.uk, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francis-bacon-682 (accessed November 21, 2015)

[3] “BACON, Francis.” Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 21, 2016, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/benezit/B00009707.

 

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